Words and Their Effects: A Rhetorical Question? (Essay)

[This is an essay I wrote in my final year at university. I rediscovered it recently and felt that it was worth posting since, in my opinion, my conclusions here are just as relevant today as they were when I arrived at them in 2016.]


‘In your opinion, how pervasive is rhetoric in private and social life? In what realms of life, if any, does rhetoric appear to have little or no part to play? Where is its influence greatest, in your estimation?’


Words and Their Effects:

A Rhetorical Question?

Persuasive discourse or rhetoric is one of the oldest surviving systematic disciplines in the world: its original insights and techniques remain largely valid, and it has survived precisely because of its capacity to adapt to ideological and social change.’ (Cockcroft & Cockcroft, 1992, 3)

The universal utility of rhetorical linguistic techniques as means of persuasion seems to suggest that they are an innately emergent property of communication between conscious beings, meaning that whether we are aware of it or not we are employing rudimentary rhetorical strategies all the time simply by choosing certain words and phrases over possible others. Indeed it seems at first glance that there will always be an indispensable rhetorical dimension to our evolving use of language, as long as there are differences of opinion, multiple perspectives, and a common imperative for consensus.

Biological evolution is in fact the perfect analogy with which to describe the necessity of persuasive linguistic tactics among individuals existing dually as part of a larger collective. The dynamics of societies demand constant interaction with ideas, opinions and beliefs that run counter to one’s own, and therefore to some degree challenge one’s conception of truth or reality. And like the DNA of biological organisms within an eco-system, these base units of thought, first referred to by Richard Dawkins as memes, compete for survival and dominance in their environment (the collective discourses within any society, as well as the linguistic landscape of each individual’s inner monologue).

But as the carriers of these memes, we hosts feel instinctively, and sometimes counter-rationally, attached to what we believe and the way in which we are used to viewing the world. And so a mediating system is required to prevent escalating friction between irreconcilable positions, desires, and ideologies. Thus rhetoric evolved, like a higher sense across many genera, over and above our innate capacity for functional language, introducing an element of creativity and skill and allowing humans to consciously manipulate the abstract plane in which our linguistic existence is staged, and weigh heavier in on the conflicts of ideas that govern our mental lives.

Viewed through this paradigm it would seem that no matter the era, or the realm of life, in which human interaction takes place, without rhetoric to lubricate the gears progress of any kind would become impossible due to the rigidity and combative nature of the unconscious epistemological structures underlying what we think we know about the world around us and its inhabitants’ minds. But before waxing solipsistic a little prematurely – the need for rhetoric may be unduly beginning to appear a consolation prize from evolution due to a shortcoming of human beings’ ability to accurately perceive their environment and peacefully reach agreement.

It is also, in the real context of subjective experience and transient meaning that all individuals know, one of our most powerful tools for preserving, increasing, and spreading the collective knowledge and experience of recorded history, which amount to the highest achievements of culture, through speeches, online videos, books, articles, and even every-day conversation.

Awareness of the intentionality with which language is used adds an extra evaluative dimension to the internalisation of elements of the culture of which the individual is a part, and through inferences and associations can create dialogic shortcuts to otherwise inaccessible points of view. In this way, if used honestly, a familiarity with the workings of rhetoric can be an indispensable tool in the search for, and dissemination of, truth and accuracy amongst the throng of competing memes in all aspects of private and social life.

Increasingly, however, in the twenty-first Century the individual is becoming in many areas rhetorically disempowered by the imposition, by sources of authority such as academic bodies, bureaucratic governments, and self-language-policing communities, of ‘accepted’ methods & theories, standardised forms of language, and prescriptive rhetorical guidelines.

Take, for example, the prominence in modern communication of the use of statistical analysis to bolster argument. When confronted with percentages, graphs, and polling data that have been collated and matrixed by a computer with access to more binary information than one can imagine, quite the feat of rhetorical slight-of-hand is required to circumvent the seemingly obvious conclusion that whatever memes against which one competes must be closer to ‘the truth’ by the very nature of the way in which the information was arrived at.

This outlook, reminiscent of justifications for medieval religious authority, implicitly disempowers individuals who have no choice but to accept what they are told about the ethereal ‘statistical world’ of which they have no direct experience, and re-empowers institutions like governments and universities as the keepers of ‘the truth’ – the ones with access to information that the individual does not possess, and who are able to decide which subjects and methods are worthy of being backed up by statistical analysis.

But statistics are not the only obscure form taken by modern knowledge. To be at the forefront of knowledge in any particular area in the twenty-first Century requires a great degree of specialisation, and therefore specialised use of language, making inter-disciplinary communication increasingly difficult.

As stated by Corbett and Conners, ‘Similarity is the basic principle behind all inductive argument and all analogy.’ (Corbett & Conners, 1999, 93) For rhetoric to function therefore requires commonalities between the producer’s and the receiver’s positions, but as each academic discipline charges further afield into its own esoteric terminology and theoretical models, to the exclusion of others, these commonalities require a great deal more study for the individual to perceive and express than they have done in the past.

It could be argued however that the necessities of statistical analysis and academic specialisation, like two sides of the same coin, are an inevitable consequence of the continued broadening of humanity’s collective search for understanding, and that they do not preclude the use of rhetoric, but merely present a greater challenge in marshalling one’s facts and utilising them effectively for any given audience. But in other, more sinister ways the range of language and argumentation available to us is still shrinking considerably.

‘Politically correct’ words and phrases are often ridiculed as the refuge of the reactionary, imaginatively-challenged, overly-sensitive ideologue, but in the political climate of the twenty-first Century it would be remiss to discount them merely as such. The dissuasive power, leading away from certain perspectives and subjects of discussion, of the perceived real world consequences of causing offence through use of ‘non-PC’ language and/or reasoning is enough to silence dissent over certain issues on the public stage and, increasingly with the rising interconnectedness of social media, in one’s private life as well.

As is stated earlier in this essay, rhetoric, when used honestly for the purpose of furthering one’s own and others’ understanding of ‘reality’ (what is considered by many to be the ultimate goal of all forms of enquiry), can be an immensely powerful tool for furthering the efforts of  this struggle. This is why the wilful denial of certain elements of reality which is evident in the censorious impulse that leads to the imposition of politically correct language schemes, in so far as it is given credence by the population, is a direct threat to the integrity of the rhetorical project of collectivising the intellectual progress of humanity.

The consequences of attempts to artificially control the evolution of language are most famously expressed by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Speaking through one of his characters, Orwell summarises the effect thus:

‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.’ (Orwell, 1949, 60)

Since what is ‘politically correct’ at any given time is decided not by intellectual investigation, but by fluctuating social consensus based on identity politics and personal sensibilities, attempts to bottle-neck the evolution of language along its narrow guidelines can only result in the stultification of people’s capacity for creative comprehension, and therefore their ability to employ effective rhetorical techniques, as well as the receptiveness of an audience to such methods of persuasion. Yet the influence of the politically correct movement, and the righteous certainty of its proponents, seems only to be growing in present times.

Seemingly then, in the age of interconnectivity and free-flowing, instantly available information, there exist more subjects than ever about which no opinion can easily be expressed. And although rhetoric has remained throughout millennia of social and ideological change a ubiquitous accompanying aspect of the intentioned use of language in all walks of life, it may finally at the turn of this millennium have reached the limits of its applicability as a discipline.

It will however undoubtedly remain, as this essay opened by affirming, an indispensable faculty on an inter-personal level as long as disagreements between individuals continue to require linguistic mediation. But for the advancement of academic pursuits, the moulding of culture on a global scale, the changing of opinions en masse, and the refutation of political and ideological stances, rhetoric may have largely become an outdated mode of persuasion.



Referenced Sources:

  • Cockcroft, Robert & Cockcroft, Susan M. (1992). Persuading people: An Introduction To Rhetoric. London, Macmillan Press Limited.
  • Corbett, Edward P.J. & Conners, Robert J. (1999). Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. New York, Oxford University Press.
  • Orwell, George. (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. England, Clays Ltd, St Ives Plc.

Unreferenced Sources:

  • Dawkins, Richard. (1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford, Ofxord University Press.
  • Fahnestock, Jeanne. (2011). Rhetorical Style: The Uses of Language in Persuasion. New York, Oxford University Press.

Written – 2016

Published – June 2020

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

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